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F1 Midweek: Does a Winless Season Make Mercedes’ 2022 a Failure?

Betteridge’s Law tells us that any headline ending in a question mark can be answered with the word “no.” That should be it then, right?

But this one though, I’m not so sure. 

On one level, for the team that won the last seven Constructor’s titles in a row, anything other than double World Championships every year has got to be considered a disappointment. Although two Grands Prix do remain before the offseason, with both 2022 titles long gone to their rivals in Milton Keynes, it seems an appropriate time to offer a premature postmortem for the Silver Arrows’ 2022. 

Despite what certain now-iconic (and now-deleted) tweets may have predicted in advance of preseason testing, the Mercedes-AMG ‘zeropod’ concept did not prove fruitful for the unlucky chassis W13. Despite the record books showing a podium result for Lewis Hamilton the first time out in Bahrain, both Mercedes were well off the pace of the leading Ferraris and Red Bulls. Hamilton only earned that third-place result due to late DNFs for both of the Bulls. 

It took until the Hungarian Grand Prix for Mercedes’ first pole position. It came at the hands of young hotshoe George Russell, the Briton able to lead the team’s first laps of the season just before the summer break but eventually fell out of the podium places. Seven-time champion Hamilton didn’t lead a lap under green until the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas, one race after Max Verstappen mathematically clinched the drivers’ title. 

Honestly, what more is there to say? The W13 is slow in a straight line compared to its rivals and, to mix animal metaphors, porpoised like a bucking bronco at the start of the year — referring to the car’s propensity to repeatedly stall its new-for-2022 underfloor aerodynamics on the straights. Hamilton revealed ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix in June that the repeated impacts, sometimes as high as 10G, were giving him headaches.

To the team’s credit, the Silver Arrows have come achingly close to victory on multiple occasions, notably in Hungary, the Netherlands and Texas, although they thrice lost out to Verstappen and Red Bull. Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez was supposed to be the team’s best shot, as the altitude of the Mexico City venue tends to minimize the performance difference between engines. But once again, it was Verstappen on the top step of the podium, this time by a truly crushing margin.

See also
F1 Review: Max Verstappen Makes It Look Easy in Mexico

Though if you asked Team Principal Toto Wolff, Russell or Hamilton if they considered the year a failure, they’d probably feed you some inspirational line about how learning from a failure makes it not a failure, really. And that’s is one of the things that’s always interested me about Mercedes, the unrelenting dominance of a program that’s famous for promoting a new-school no-blame culture.

The automaker pulled out of F1 after the 1955 Le Mans disaster and only re-entered the sport as a full works team in 2010. But the rapid emergence of the German/Malaysian (but actually British) organization as the dominant power in global single-seater competition took shockingly little time — five years from initial entry to becoming double world champions. Certainly not unexpected from the team bankrolled by the world’s oldest automaker, but as the owner of a 1989 300E, I can certainly attest that the mere presence of the three-pointed star doesn’t magically make a car fast or reliable. In some cases, far from it. 

And like the electrical gremlin I can’t sort out on my 33-year-old sedan, the W13 may just be one of those cases. And that’s why I’m going to call 2022 a failure for Mercedes, Betteridge be damned. 

The car just doesn’t work, and even if you argued, as Wolff did early in the season, that they just need time to understand the intricacies of the chassis, you’d be wrong. Wolff himself admitted after Austin that “the DNA of the car is going to change for next year … the architecture of the car will change.” 

So yes, Mercedes can learn from a year of struggle. Which, to be fair, hasn’t been that much of a struggle at all. They’re well clear of fourth in the constructor standings and closing in on Ferrari for second — a far better season than Red Bull’s bum year in 2015But neither that fact, nor the consolation prize of a little more permitted wind-tunnel time, nor any good-spirited resolution to learn from failure can soften the blow that this season has been an utter failure for Mercedes-AMG.

Worse still, its rivals Red Bull and Ferrari will be heading into the winter able to build on the knowledge they have on designing fast cars under the new-era regulations, Mercedes having to come from behind with only the knowledge of what not to do.

I suppose, then, ultimate arbitration will come down to 2023. If Mercedes’ “new DNA” is able to bring its drivers right into the fight with Red Bull, the team will have learned from its errors and all of the after-school-special optimism will have proven itself. If, as so often befell Mercedes’ own challengers during its era of dominance, the gap only widens between the best and the rest, Wolff can point to 2022 as the year when it all fell apart.

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